ï~~Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 44 (2007) 249-251
Larry W Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and
Christian Origins. Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006.
xiv + 248 pages + 9 plates. ISBN 978-0-8028-2895-8.
Hurtado's accessible primer on the earliest Christian manuscripts maintains a strict focus: Coptic texts are too late, Semitic texts too indirect. The
broader historical frame comes into play in places, but we find here, rather,
a concerted look at Greek papyri and parchments of the second and third
centuries containing "Christian Literary Texts." These include biblical and
apocryphal texts, along with a variety of explicitly theological material like
Irenaeus, Melito, Origen, a few prayers, and a hymn. Appendix 1 gives a list
of the 246 manuscripts under scrutiny: 92 Old Testament texts (including the
few predating the second century), 85 New Testament, 19 Apocrypha, 50 theological. These manuscripts are examined, in particular, for what they tell us
The text is divided into five chapters. The first contains a straightforward
description of the texts, at times a rather pedestrian listing of the number of
witnesses for, say, Matthew as opposed to Luke as opposed to the Shepherd of
Hermas or Gospel of Thomas, but with some interesting comments along the
way. In particular, H. stresses the consequences of the wide distribution of
New Testament and apocryphal texts for our ideas of Christian community
and interchange - e.g., that the variety of biblical and apocryphal texts recovered from second- and third-century Oxyrhynchus seems to suggest that the
apocrypha were part of the broad interests of Christian readers in these early
times rather than a sign of isolated heterodox communities.
With that as a basis, H. moves directly to the best-known issue arising
from the early Christian manuscripts, namely, that of the "Early Christian
Preference for the Codex" (chapter 2). He presents a thorough (if at times
statistically over-elaborated) review of the facts that demonstrate that preference, followed by a sensible review of scholarly speculations on the causes.
Importantly, he successfully exposes for the student what is fact, what is scholarly opinion, and what might form reasonable grounds on which to construct
history from such evidence. In the end, he sides (tentatively, as is necessary)
with Harry Gamble's view (Books and Readers in the Early Church, 1995) that
the preference devolves from an early collection of Pauline epistles in codex
form. This chapter is a good place to send students and colleagues looking for
an account of the issues involved, Roberts and Skeat's admirable Birth of the
Codex (1983) being now out of date.